About this time last year, I wrote about burning regulations, which come into effect Nov. 1. One reader responded to that article and said he had something to add. That one person invited me to take a peek at a unique solution to the inversion problem – asking high school students to help educate the public about cars and their relationship to air pollution, one poster at a time.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 60% of air pollution comes from motor vehicles. That concerns Utah State University marketing professor Edwin Stafford and his colleague Roslynn McCann of Utah State Extension Sustainability. They are teaming up with high school students to make a difference in pollution prevention.
“Utah has a breathing problem,” said Stafford in a presentation to Green Canyon High School art students. He outlined problems air pollution can cause, including premature death, heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, and decreased lung function. Stafford said the biggest problem of all is most people don’t seem to care.
“How do you engage Utahns about air quality?” Stafford asked. “How do you get people to care about the environment when they usually don’t?”
That’s where the high school students come in. McCann and Stafford created the Utah Clean Air Poster Contest to educate about pollution. Since its inception in 2015, the contest has invited students to create messages informing the public about clean air.
But why enlist high schoolers to the clean-air cause? One Green Canyon student said, “I think this demographic is good because the younger we are, the newer ideas we have. We can get things across differently than other generations.”
Stafford said he and McCann selected a high school audience primarily to teach the students directly. “We wanted to educate kids learning to drive and help them acquire good driving habits,” Stafford said. What McCann and Stafford discovered next is that the education didn’t stop at high schoolers.
“Kids would go home excited and talk to their parents,” Stafford said. Stafford explained that many members of the older generations never learned about the dangers of air pollution and ways to reduce it in their own public education. Now, high school students spread that message to their parents through conversation and art.
McCann and Stafford have studied the outcome of clean air education going from youth to parents. In their recent academic study and paper, published in “Sustainability: The Journal of Record,” Stafford said, “Seventy-one percent of parents reported that their teens talked to them about air pollution as a consequence of the poster contest, and teens who discussed specific actions (e.g. not idling, carpooling, etc.) for preserving air quality had the most influence on changing parent behaviors.”
Hoping to expand their results, McCann and Stafford have been reaching out to high schools across the state and giving presentations to students who will enter the contest. Cache Valley high schools participating include Green Canyon, Fast Forward, Logan, Ridgeline, Mountain Crest, Preston and Westside. Art students make up the bulk of the participants, but at some schools, business and environmental science classes are participating. Stafford estimates over 800 students will enter the 2020 contest.
That effect is something local businesses and citizens are excited to support. Sponsors who support clean-air education donate gift cards and cash prizes to encourage more youths to participate. Because more students and schools are becoming involved, local sponsors are still needed and can contact Stafford to learn more.
One or two winning posters are selected from each participating class, so each high school advances several students to the state final. From there a panel of about 12 principals, prominent citizens, and former winners vote on the posters on an online forum. Stafford estimated 12-15 winners would be selected this year.
This year’s winning art pieces will be on display first at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State in February 2020. Then, in fall 2020, those winners will be featured in a year-long exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah. “The kids will be able to take family and friends to see their work,” Stafford said. Besides the privilege of being included in these exhibits, winners will go home with about $100 or more in prizes from sponsors.
For students, however, it’s not all about the prizes. Green Canyon High School’s two-time contest winner MaKinna Elwood has seen her work honored at the state level, but for her there is more at stake. “It’s a good way to get my art out there and it’s also going to a good cause,” she said. “ I really hate the air pollution in the winter. It really effects me and I want the air to be clean.”
Other students from the Green Canyon class echoed Elwood’s feelings. One young lady said, “We are going into a world where a lot of things are wrong. As the rising generation, we see it as our job to try and fix it.”
For me, watching students react to Stafford’s presentation was both eye-opening and inspiring. It’s easy to think that one person can’t make a difference in the environment. But Stafford, McCann, and 800 Utah high school students are proving that is not true. Each student can make a difference in reducing pollution – one poster or one conversation at a time.
Kate E Anderson is a mother of five living in North Logan. She can be reached at email@example.com